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Our Forests Could Sequester Twice As Much Carbon If We Just Let Them Grow

Old White Pine in Walker Conservation Area, Groton. Still alive, storing carbon now and in the future.


by Mary J Metzger
In the fight to find solutions for climate change we have some allies in nature. Soils, grazing lands, wetlands, oceans, and forests are all storing carbon. Our country’s forests are absorbing 11% of the carbon we are now emitting in greenhouse gases. Massachusetts forests have the highest carbon density in the Northeast, three times that of Maine, and for the past 30 years have been increasing their carbon intake. They could sequester twice as much carbon if we just let the trees grow.
     This proposal, dubbed “proforestation” by climate researcher Dr. William Moomaw of Tufts University, is based on studies that show while younger trees take up carbon more quickly, it is the older trees that hold the most carbon.
He says, “Out of every hundred trees in the forest, the biggest one may hold half of the carbon.”
     Massachusetts forests are middle-aged, ranging from 45- 100 years old. They can continue to absorb carbon for another century. All the while, they will add more carbon to the soils and provide other important eco services, such as flood and erosion control, clean air and water, oxygen, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
     Though reforestation is important, in the long run proforestation is more important now because we don’t have a long run to deal with climate change.
     “Cutting older trees and planting younger, faster growing trees will not surpass the carbon accumulation of slower growing larger trees. They can never catch up in the years we need to have it done,” Dr Moomaw says.
     A little over a decade ago Massachusetts began following a European model of counting wood biomass as renewable energy. Opposition to this action and scientific studies authorized by the Patrick administration showed that in the
short-term, burning wood releases more carbon than burning fossil fuels (25% more CO2 per BTU than fuel oil, 50% more than propane, and 75% more than natural gas.) And it adds dangerous particulates and other pollutants to the air we breathe.
     Burned wood is renewable as it can be replaced by new trees. But it takes a century for those younger trees to reabsorb the carbon that is lost by burning. And we don’t have a century.
     The Commonwealth has set a goal to be climate neutral by 2050, with net emissions declining from their 2010 levels by 2030. A Conference Committee of three state Senators and three Representatives is hammering out legislation (H.4912 and S.2500) to try to reach these goals. The Baker Administration has ignored the science and reintroduced the policy of considering biomass fuels to be carbon neutral. State subsidies for biomass energy industries are included in the proposed legislation. And more state forests are being opened to timber interests.
     One beneficiary will be the Palmer Plant, a wood-burning electric power generating station proposed and opposed for years in a low-income neighborhood of Springfield, ‘the asthma capital’ of the country. These subsidies for burning wood pellets come from our electric bills, something that is supposed to go to solar and wind, true renewable energies.
     Another threat is the unexpected forest conversion to solar farms. “There’s no need to cut forests for solar. We have plenty of other areas, like abandoned strip mall parking lots where these can be hosted.”
     While Moomaw believes we can have two types of forest reserves, with some designated as industrial production forests and some as natural forests managed for diversity, it’s the older forests that need saving.
Massachusetts Forest Watch recommends that concerned citizens contact the governor and state reps and senators. Ask them to stop logging on State Forests and contact the Conference Committee (Senators Barrett, Creem and O’Connor and Representatives Golden, Haddad, and Jones). Ask them to eliminate any public subsidies and preferential treatment for wood fueled biomass energy and exclude biomass as a renewable form.
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